Friday, October 23, 2009

Beijing Time

Beijing Time

October 18, 2009

I awoke this morning to darkness and it was nearly 8am—Am I in Siberia? Hardly, in fact Urumqi is probably on par with Milwaukee as far as latitude goes. In other words, 8am equates to daylight hours. The problem lies in Beijing’s insistence that the entire PRC be in the same time zone, known as Beijing Time. For a country as wide as China, this simply isn’t practical. Confusion arises in places such as Urumqi, which should be two hours behind Beijing. Since it’s not, people must adjust accordingly. Banks are open from 10am-8pm and people don’t eat lunch until three in the afternoon. . . . usually. Some people choose to speak in terms of what the local time should be, so to be safe one must always confirm a time with the question, “Is that Beijing Time?”

Later. . .

I’m on the road again, off to Turpan, this time by bus. We occasionally pass wild camels strolling by the highway, which absolutely thrills me. Suddenly, the driver slams on the breaks, going from 60mph to nil in a blink of an eye. I’m just glad he does us the courtesy of pulling over to the shoulder in the process. He exits the bus and I watch him with interest. Slipping on a pair of gloves, he walks toward the rear. Did something break? Do we have a flat tire? I certainly didn’t feel or hear anything to warrant this conclusion. What does the driver know that I don’t? I watch him as he crotches over a black object, picking it up and tossing it into the hold with the passenger luggage. This mysterious object, I realize, is a huge chunk of coal that must have fallen off the bed of a passing truck. Why let it go to waste? Nevermind the safety of his 60 helpless passengers, this guy wants his freebee.

Let it be noted, that this is not the first time a driver has stopped for road kill. Once, when I hired a driver in rural Shanxi Province, I was similarly startled by the sudden swerving of the car. We stopped, as did the car ahead of us. Turns out, that car had hit a wild pheasant (dinner!). When it comes to road kill, evidently there isn’t a lot of etiquette. My driver, with the reflexes of a cat, was first to the prize, snatching it up and throwing it into the trunk in world record breaking time. And so it happened on the way to Turpan. . . twice. The second time I was unable to get a glimpse of the treasure. I just waited patiently on the bus while the male passengers scurried off the bus, seizing the opportunity to have a quick cigarette break.

Turpan. . .

The military appear to be absent in this small city. There is a distinctive Arab atmosphere here and I feel as if I’ve been transported to the Middle East, as the people and architecture suggest. I like it—in a country this big you can feel like you’ve left the country without actually going anywhere. China is a lot like America in that sense.

Upon arrival in Turpan, I am greeted with numerous offers from drivers who want to take me to the attractions outside the city. While I would like to join a tour or hire a driver, finding a hotel is my first matter of business. Of course the hotel so highly recommended by the guidebook is now a pile of rubble, as is the only bank that exchanges currency and the travel agency I was hoping to arrange a tour with. In China, you must always have a back-up plan, so I headed to mine—Turpan Hotel.

At Turpan Hotel, I score a decent economy room for a mere 50RMB (US$8) and am again harassed by a potential driver, but now that I’m settled into my accommodation I am willing to hear him out. He has already found two Israeli men who want to hire him as their driver, under the condition that they can find another person to share the cost. I agree to join them in their tour, but first we must find these Israelis so we can settle on our plan.

Halik, the driver, says they were planning to visit the Bazaar and invites me on his quest to find them. Having nothing better to do, I agree. We hop in his car and driver over to the market, scanning the sidewalk for tall, white boys. We walk through the Bazaar twice, without a foreigner to be seen. No worries, I make a pit stop for some traditional Uighur food, a few meaty, fatty lamb kebobs. Halik and I take another lap but to no avail, so I’m driven back to the hotel and Halik will continue on his search. He solemnly swears that he will find the two tall Israelis by nightfall. I’m skeptical, but impressed by his persistence. I now also realize how utterly desperate this guy is to be our driver. After the July rioting there have been virtually no tourists visiting Xinjiang. I can’t help but feel a little sorry for Halik and wonder if this is his only means to make a living. I decide that I will hire him to be my driver, Israelis or not.

Eventually everything does work out for all of us. The Israeli guys, Yonathan and Eran, find a third wheel (me), I join their tour, and Halik gets to drive us around for a day. We all agree on a price (300RMB for the car for the day) and the time, 9am (Beijng Time).

A Place in the World Without Internet

A Place in the World without Internet

October 17, 2009

I’ve driven through Nebraska, Nevada, Southern Illinois, and nothing quite compares to the landscape in China’s Xinjiang Province. It’s wide and open, nearly devoid of people in an otherwise crowded country. It is brown—dirt? Sand? Radioactive waste? I’m not sure. I feel like I’m on a train heading toward the world’s end, or am at least entering a different country. I am still in China though, heading to Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

Some fun facts about Xinjiang Province: It is one-sixth the size of China’s landmass but is home to just one-sixtieth of the country’s people. Nearly 50 of China’s 56 ethnic minorities live here. The province borders eight countries, some of which you may have never heard of—former Soviet states including Kazakhstan (home of Borat), Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, among others. The provincial capital, Urumqi is a whopping 2250km from any ocean, allowing it to boast the title of “Further City in the World from an Ocean.”

We have just stopped in Turpan, a city 200km southwest of Urumqi and the station signs are in Chinese and (what appears to be) Arabic. Some passengers have disembarked and I believe they are refilling the train’s water supply which went dry sometime this morning. No water for teeth brushing or toilet flushing, but these are not uncommon occurrences on train rides of 40+ hours. I have devised a system in which I wake up at 4am, before even the earliest of risers, and take care of my business then. No waiting in line for the toilet and no running out of water.

We have now pulled out of Turpan and are, once again, surrounded by nothing. Or everything. I can’t decide. The radio is broadcasting Beijing News and it cuts to commercial but not before playing a familiar jingle. It’s the music from Milwaukee’s TMJ4 News. I am oddly comforted by this sound I would normally find irksome. Anything that reminds me of home is pleasant when I’m this far away from it.

Our train has just passed a truck, one of few I’ve seen during the past hour of gazing out the window. There are at least a dozen men in the cab, which is covered by a large tarp. It reminds me of a scene from a movie in which immigrants are trying to illegally cross a border. One of the men waves at me (the train), which is strange. Chinese people never wave. I once explained to Ming how in America we often wave at passing trains and planes; he looked at me confused. Maybe it is a strange habit, but I find it nice when strangers wave at each other, and in this case, it has assured me that I’m probably not witnessing a pack of fleeing refugees.

Later. . .

Turpan gave way to mountains, then vegetation, and finally to the sprawling oasis of Urumqi. I guess what surprises me the most about this city is how much it resembles other Chinese cities. There are a few elements to Urumqi, however, that make it seemingly unique, sometimes tragically.

First, nobody stares at me here. Ever. Not even Beijing can make such a claim. Are there a lot of foreigners in Urumqi? The answer to this is both yes and no. In the sense that I am a foreigner, an American of Western European ethnicity—then no, there aren’t. I’ve seen one other whitey all day. I have seen myriad Middle Eastern, Central and South Asian, and Eastern European-looking individuals. Are they foreigners? I guess it depends on your perspective. Most of them are quite un-Chinese in appearance, but they probably have deeper roots to this area than most Han (ethnic majority in China and what you and I often think of as “Chinese”) living here. Among all this diversity, I could easily fit in here—even with my botched Chinese, locals would just assume my native tongue was Kazakh, Russian, or Uighur, all common languages in Xinjiang.

Which brings me to my next observation, nearly every sign has both Chinese and Uighur (looks like Arabic) on it, some even have Russian. After months of Mandarin, it’s refreshing to hear something different, even if I don’t understand it. My only hang up is knowing when it’s appropriate to use Mandarin. Should I use it when addressing someone who is clearly not Han Chinese? Considering there’s a much better chance they’ll speak Mandarin over English, I’m going to stick to speaking Chinese and see what happens. Hopefully I won’t cause any hurt feelings.

Unfortunately, with all this wonderful diversity often comes resentment and unrest. I am unable to get very deep into the politics of the region, but perhaps we can draw some parallels between Xinjiang and Tibet. Main issues: Han Chinese have moved en mass to the region and Beijing has done a lot of development here. Ethnic minorities want more autonomy (at the very least) and feel their culture has been stripped away. In the past two years there have been bombings and rioting in Xinjiang, most recently this past July. This incident ultimately led to Facebook being blocked in China, as well as the internet being completely blocked in all of Xinjiang Province. Yes, this province has gone over three months without internet, with no connection in sight. I’m shocked this place can still function in the 21st century without it, but there is some comfort in knowing that life can go on without this important piece of technology. Mostly, however, it just pisses me off—thanks Big Brother. Locals seem relatively calm and unsurprised by such restrictions. As exemplified here:

“When do you think you’ll have internet again?” I asked the hostel manager.

“I don’t know. Nobody knows. Maybe if things go well, after next year,” she answered cheerfully.

As if no internet wasn’t enough, there is military policing nearly every corner of the city, walking around in green camos carrying around clubs, batons, and guns (tasers?). Their presence makes me uneasy, but I’m out of here tomorrow. Word is I won’t be seeing them outside of Urumqi. I’ll let you know what it’s like once I arrive in Turpan.

Friday, August 28, 2009

¿Cómo se dice apendicitis en chino?

I recently had the pleasure of spending five days in a Chinese hospital. This was not my first experience in a Chinese hospital, but certainly the longest. My other experiences have been bizarre and often frustrating, but there are some matters so personal that even I won't explore them in detail over a blog.

As for the most recent incident, it all started innocently enough after dinner on one Sunday night. I had a really bad stomachache, not an uncommon occurrence for me. I decided that forgetting about the pain by sleeping would be the best remedy and went to bed at the tragic hour of 9pm. At 1am, I woke up with a start, barely able to move. The pain had moved to my lower right side--I just knew I had an appendicitis. I woke up Ming and turned on my computer to look up the symptoms. Thank you technology for allowing me to self-diagnose. I managed to confirm my suspicions right before I got dizzy and passed out (fainted, really). Never the one to overreact, Ming called the ambulance.

The ambulance, a concept in China that is unlike it's counterpart in the west. Where I come from, an Ambulance is a vehicle not to be reckoned with. You call it in the direst of emergencies and when you see it flying down the road you get the hell out of the way. It doesn't quite work that way in the Middle Kingdom, where an ambulance is given about the same amount of courtesy as any other vehicle--none. Truth be told, once I got inside of one I realized why the Chinese don't take them very seriously. In China, an ambulance is little more than a glorified van with a bed in the back. On the plus side, calling an ambulance in China is much cheaper than calling an Ambulance in the States. Probably about 1/70th of the cost, but I suppose you get what you pay for.

Though the ambulance ride did not live up the expectations engrained in me by ER and Grey's Anatomy, I did get to the hospital safely and quickly. We arrived to an empty emergency room, which must be a miracle by any country's standards. I was then fearing what they were going to do to me. To be checked for an appendicitis, I've heard horror stories of enemas and weird serums and scans. But not to worry, the doctor asked me a couple questions, poked me, and assured me he was pretty sure I had an appendicitis. Twist. . . since it was in the beginning stage they could treat the infection with medicine. Treat an appendicitis with medicine? Were these people serious?

Regardless of the doctor's opinion, I wanted the surgery. That's what people do in the States so it's got to be the right course of treatment.. Ming and his mom, however, had other ideas. They both advised me against it because surgery is dangerous and perhaps more importantly, bad for the body's qi. I care more about a ruptured appendix than my qi, but I decided to give the medicine approach a try. Monday I sat in my hospital room along with two other patients, their families and family, as well as most of Ming's family. I had an IV in my arm for the better duration of the day and I wasn't allowed to eat or drink anything. By Tuesday, I felt completely better minus a massive headache from my caffeine withdrawal. The end seemed in sight and soon I'd be able to eat and drink but suddenly Ming had a change of heart. He wanted me to have the surgery. His reasoning was sound--I'd be at risk for a future inflammation and it would be very dangerous if I were pregnant or traveling in some underdeveloped country. And we all know my penchant for traveling in underdeveloped countries. I agreed to have the surgery and I went into the operating room at 11pm on Tuesday.

Considering I just had surgery, the next day I woke up feeling okay. I opted for the more high tech surgery which involves only three tiny incisions and no stitches. I was on day 3 with no food or water (other than an IV of glucose, yum) which was making me feel pretty irritable. The steady stream of visitors was also a wee bit wearing. I didn't have the energy to conversate in Chinese and since most of my guests didn't speak English this was becoming a bit of a problem. Once Thursday rolled around and I could eat things started to look up and then on Friday morning they released me. I've now been home for over a week and almost as good as new despite all the crazy restrictions set upon me by Chinese doctors: no showering, no alcohol, no seafood, no spicy food, and no cold beverages of any kind.
On an end note, let it be known that I now realize being in a hospital can leave one helpless and scared. Those feelings are intensified when in a foreign country. In China, the methods for practicing medicine are completely different and it's hard to have people explain and translate things properly with all the medical jargon. To add a further obstacle, doctors and nurses don't really keep much of an eye on the patients, so it's up to family and friends to be there to monitor. It only cost $7/day to stay in this fairly pleasant and air-conditioned hospital, which probably explains why the care isn't so great. They have to keep things affordable because many people pay out of pocket in this Communist country. Despite the frustrations, I have to say overall it was a tolerable experience and I'm happy the hypochondriac in me will no longer have to worry about a rupturing appendix.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Mount Bromo-other worldly

July 4, 2009

Pounding headache. Lack of caffeine, water, food, sleep--it could be due to any of these factors. I'm at Toto in Probolingo and doing what I do best, waiting. I just got back from the internet cafe. It was a 2km walk from the bus terminal. During my walk I was repeatedly screamed at, mostly by children, "Hello, Miss!" they called. One 3-year-old even yelled, "Hello, tourist!" I saw some baby goats and got calls from men in passing trucks and buses. It was 5:15pm and the sun was already setting. I was a little relieved to make it back to the skeezy bus terminal. So here I wait.

But I'm leaving out the best part of the day--Mount Bromo. I woke up at 3:45am to catch my jeep at 4am. A guy on a motorbike came to pick me up as I sat waiting, freezing, outside my guesthouse. I was bundled up in my new hat and scarf, as well as a blanket I snatched off my bed. The guy took me over to a jeep that was filled with a group of friendly Spainards who, apparently, all lived in Singapore. Together we endured the bumpiest ride of my life. I should have worn a helmet.

We arrived at the viewpoint before 5am. Our driver parked the jeep on the mountainside, a ways down from the viewpoint. We hiked up, surrounded by hoards of Indonesians. I felt like I was part of a religious pilgrimage. Once I made it to the viewpoint, I realized there was no way to actually view anything through the masses, not to mention it was still dark out.

I managed to find a bench to sit on where me and my blanket could wait. The sun began to rise, but I refused to move. After about half an hour, I saw a small break in the crowd. I maneuvered through the people and made it to the viewpoint. The sight was spectacular--definitely worth all the trouble and completely unlike anything I've ever seen before. There, in front of me, was a smoke-belching active volcano. After 20 minutes of staring mesmerized at the thing, I decided I'd better make way for other people to look.

As I began walking down the mountain towards the jeep, I realized I had no idea what jeep I took--I didn't even know the color. It seemed like everyone was returning to the jeep they originally came with. There had to be a couple hundred jeeps parked down the mountain. How was I going to figure this out?

I continued my descent, hoping I'd spot the Smiling Spainards. I saw that I was nearing the end of parked jeeps and still nothing or no one looked familiar. It had been pitch black when I had gotten out of the car. As panic started to creep in, a guy ran over to me. "Are you in a jeep with Spanish people?" the man said with a European accent.

"Yes!" I exclaimed and followed him to the car. The Smiling Spainards had recognized my blanket when I had walked passed them and our jeep. What a relief! I wasn't going to have to beg a ride off someone else, or worse, walk back.

Next on the agenda was to go to Bromo and look the beast in the mouth. After 20 minutes of hitting my head on the roof of the jeep and falling all over this poor Spanish woman, we made it to the base of the volcano. Now all we had to do was climb it. There were horses available for hire, but the S.S. weren't interested--they'd hike it. I didn't want to appear to be the lazy, weak-willed American that I usually am, so I decided to climb on my own too.l

With the volcanic sand swirling in the air, I felt like I was in the desert. The sand went into my eys, nose, and shoes. Horses trotted past me and a steep climb loomed ahead. The last part of the ascent included stairs. I huffed and puffed my way to the top until I finally made it. I tiptoed over to the crater's edge and looked down into the smoking volcano, Wow. My reveried was soon interupted.

"Excuse me, Miss? Can we ask you a few questions?" a sweet faced, young Indonesian girl asked me, her two young male counterparts gazing up at me. They were all wearing matching blue polos with the name of their English school written across the breast. I eyed them suspiciously.

"Um, okay."

"We are from _____ English College and we are here to practice our English with tourists," the girl explained as one of the boys took out a camera phone to record this momentous event.

She asked me The Six Questions, plus a few more for good measure. We then posed for pictures and they went on their way, hunting down their next English speaking victim.

I made my way down from Bromo but not before being questioned by three more groups from _____ English College. I managed to find the jeep and S.S. with no trouble. After a 10 minute ride we were back into town. Now on to Yogyakart, Java's cultural center.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Phase Two-Java

Friday, July 3, 2009

What a difference a day makes. Cici is gone. She is on a plane back to China as I write this.

Right after I finished writing my last entry, she came back to our room. She told me she had some bad news. When she opened her email inbox she found 21 messages from her frantic brother. Her younger sister was having some health issues, something she'd been dealing with for awhile. Cici immediately called her dad. He had called her dozens of times the previous day and couldn't understand why her phone was off. Cici, refusing to admit she was traveling outside the country, told her dad that her phone was broken and she was in the process of getting a new one. She told him she would get some business settled in Beijing and return to her home in two days. Cici lives in rural Hebei Province, the province that surrounds Beijing, a hours drive from the capital.

"Why did you lie to him?" I asked. "Why didn't you just tell him where you are?"

"I don't want my parents to worry about me," Cici explained.

"What are you going to tell them when you don't actually come home in two days?" I probed.

"I will be home in two days. I have to leave Indonesia tomorrow," Cici told me. Then it hit me. She would actually go home to take care of her sister, as she had been busy doing the month prior to our vacation. Wow. The thought hadn't occured to me.

Yesterday, the day of our flight to Surabaya, Java, we woke up at 4:30 and took our taxi to the airport with Mathes, who had a flight to Medan. Cici and I went to Surabaya, the smoggy capital of East Java. From there she took a flight to KL and this morning she flew direct from KL to Beijing.

As for my day yesterday, it was very long. I thought Trip to Gili Meno Day was long. That was just a warm-up. Yesterday was considerably worse and without a cool ocean breeze. I had hung out at the airport with Cici until 9am. I then took the airport bus to Surabaya's main bus terminal to get a bus to Probolingo, from there I would arrange onward transport to Mount Bromo, my next destination. At the bus terminal the men were on me like vultures. One smiling man asked me if I was headed to Mount Bromo. "Yes," I answered and he pointed me in the right direction. I headed to where all the buses were parked. A man from the information desk waved me over.

"Where are you going?"

"Probolingo," I answered suspiciously. I'm suspicious of everyone in bus terminals.

"Express or economy?" He asked.

"It doesn't matter to me; economy is okay," I replied, my first mistake of the day.

He ushered me over to the buses as men called to me, motioned, yelled, and smiled. Info Desk Guy grabbed my hand and waved them off, depositing me in front of the appropriate bus but not before asking me The Six Questions All Indonesians Love to Ask. The Six Questions are as follows:

1.) What's your name?
2.) Where do you come from?**
3.) You married?
4.) You have son?
5.) Where you going?
6.) You speak Indonesian?

**To which I answer, "American." They then shout, "A-MER-I-CA! OBAMA!!" It took me awhile to realize why they showed so much love for our President. It slipped my mind that he lived in Indonesian while he was in grade school.

Now that you are educated about the Six Questions, we can return to the matter at hand-Hell Day. If you ever find yourself in Indonesian, take my advice and never take the economy bus. It is not comfortable, however it is probably more interesting the express bus, I will give it that. There is, of course, no air-con on the economy bus. The window is in two sections; the top section can slide open to let some air in, the bottom part does not. There is a drape on the bottom window that helps block the scortching sun. Unfortunately, the sun was high enough in the sky to beat down on me through the top section of the window. Selecting which side of the bus to sit on is a very important consideration when traveling in Southeast Asia.

The bus never managed to pick up much speed, thanks to "this country's fucking traffic" (that's a direct quote from my tour agent in Probolingo). Little speed equals little breeze, so it was just me and 60 Indonesians stuck on a bus moving at 5km/hour in the sweltering heat.

Luckily(?), we did have some entertainment, first from the TV at the front of the bus that blasted Indonesian karoke songs and second from the peddlers that were allowed on the bus as we sat in a parking lot of traffic. These guys sold everything--nuts, spring rolls, cigarettes, homemade popsicles, stuffed animal key chains, and coloring books. They also had soda in a bag. Soda in a bag is wildly popular in SEAsia. It's quite easy to make: add one 200ml glass(!) bottle of coke or fanta (comes in a variety of flavors including blueberry) into a small bag of ice and throw in a straw. In addition to all these tantalizing treats, we were also serenaded by a three-man band, then a banjo player, followed by a particularly bored sounding teenage singer, then another guitar player. After their performance the musicians came around with a bag asking for money. Finally, they jumped off our bus and moved on to the next.

Following the latter string of musicians, my favorite act came on the bus. An old man who's trade was puppeteering. He manipulated his homemade cardboard puppets for nearly 15 minutes in hopes of collecting a few coins from us, his audience. His puppets included a hunched old lady with a hand colored head scarf and matching sarong, as well as a younger, bustier woman. This hip young lady puppet featured real hoop earrings and neon green mobile phone. A real go-getter this puppet was. As an added bonus, and in true puppet fashion, their limbs could be moved by a stick controlled by their puppetmaster.

Since my Bahasa Indonesian is zilch, I couldn't understand the dialogue or songs the old man performed, but I'm pretty sure it had something to do with the tragic demise of traditional values and the encroachment of Western consumerism and ideals on young Indonesians. The again, maybe it was just about two women doing laundry. In any case, I was satisfied with the act, though the old man didn't get any coin from me.

My patience eventually ran thin, especially with puppeteer gone. After three hours on the bus I was near my breaking point. The traffic, the heat, the constant guitar playing and selling--I was ready to scream or cry or both. But alas we made it to Probolingo. Now I'd just have to get to Cemoro Lewang, the village next to Mount Bromo. According to my sources (a page ripped out of the Lonely Planet), it was a mere two hours by minibus. Piece of cake.

I arrived at Probolingo's bus terminal at 1:00pm and the bus to Cemoro Lewang leaves at. . . 1:00pm. I'd have to wait for the next one, which would leave when full. I parked it at Toto Tour Agency and booked my trip to from Cemoro Lewang to Bromo by jeep, as well as my onward bus to Yogyakarta. I talked to the owner, let's call him Mr. Toto, and his wife, Mrs. Toto, for nearly two hours. Mrs. Toto and I are now facebook friends. Yay.

Mrs. Toto suggested here and I sit outside Toto Tour Agency where there was more of a breeze. As soon as I sat down the hoards descended. First a peddler with a strap around his neck with a box attached to the end of the straps that rested against his abdomen. This peddler only had one arm, on which was only two fingers. He did most things (smoked his cigarette,k showed me his merchandise) with his feet. Two other gentlemen approached, not selling anything but simply wanting to ask me The Six Questions.

Finally, I went over to a shop selling bakso, an Indonesian noodle soup with meatballs. As soon as I finished my meal, Mr. Toto took me on his motorbike over to the minibus for Cemoro Lewang. The bus, as previously mentioned, would leave when full. In this teensy, tiny van, in which you sit with your knees touching your chin, there was somehow room for about 20 people. We currently had eight; it was now 3:30. I spent the next hour repeatedly answering The Six Questions, until finally I had reaching My Breaking Point. Just then our bus pulled out of the lot and my heart did a little dance of joy. Then we stopped. Our bus sat parked, engine running, straddling the lot and the busy road for the next ten minutes while Creepy Guy with Long Hair screamed "Bromo! Bromo!" out the window. Two German girls sate at the front of the bus and didn't seemed phased by any of this. It appreared they were actually enjoying themselves--laughing, smiling, chatting with locals in Indonesian. I hated them. I was about to scream, to cry and then the driver hit the gas. We went 50 meters down the road and stopped again. I closed my eyes ("Serenity now! Serenity now!") and breathed. A minute later we were off again, this time for real.

As we made our way to our destination the bus emptied out. I thought this was a good thing; I could stretch out my legs and take my backpack off my lap. However, these luxaries came at a price. Creepy Guy with Long Hair came over and started with The Six Questions, but then he cleverly manuevered the conversation to the topic of massage. And how he would give me one. I told him I don't like massage and I had to keep telling him, again. . . and again. . . and again. He ignored my attempts to brush him off, even after I put my earphones in and closing my eyes he would not let up. "We friends. Free. You no pay," Creepy promised. I decided to play my trump card and showed him pictures of Ming, "This is my husband. He is in China now, where I live," I explained to Creep.

"China in China. Indonesia in Indonesia. No problem," Creep rationalized.

"Problem," I said sharply, wanting to get my point across but not wanting to get angry.

At last we arrived, but it was after 6:00 and therefore dark. The driver took me directly to a guesthouse and the German girls got off with me. I was hoping Creep would go, but he worked for the bus and took it upon himself to help us check-in to our rooms. The offers of free massage continued, as did my terse rebuffs. Eventually Creep went away and left me with the Germans, Anna and Maria, who invited me to join them for dinner. I no longer hated them, turns out that I quite like them. They have been in Indonesia for nearly a year through their university back home and Anna has actually studied Bahasa Indonesia(n) for five years.

We ate at a local "restaurant" (two tables) and I ordered teh jahe (ginger tea) and tahu telor (rice with veggies, tofu, and peanut sauce) for the bargain price of 7,000 rupiah (70 cents). We returned to our rooms, which are spartan to say the least. I'm definitely overpaying at 65,000 rupiah, if that tells you anything. My room contains a bed, a cigarette butt, a mirror, and two blankets. That's fine. The real problem arises in the toilet, which is shared. That's not really the problem either though.

It is a typical Indonesian toilet, which is squat and accompanied by a tap that fills into a large trough of water (no sink). You dip a large ladel into the trough and dump that water into the toilet to flush. Okay, no problem, I can live with that system. No soap, okay, whatever, I have some of my own. There is, alas, no shower. Problem. If you want to shower you have to dump a ladel of freezing cold water over yourself. If I was in Bali or pretty much anywhere else in Indonesia, this might be okay, but Cemoro Lewang is cold. So cold, in fact, that I had to buy a winter hat and scarf here.

Yes, last night I froze my ass off, waking up repeatedly from sweet dreams that included winter jackets and long underwear. It is indeed very strange to go from dripping sweat to shaking in my boots all in the spanse of 35km.

Today is cold and rainy. I had lunch with Anna and Maria, bought a few postcards, and managed to run into Creep. There's not much to do in this tiny village, but I kinda enjoy being bored and freezing cold. It reminds me of Wisconsin.

Island Time-Life on Meno and then Senggigi

July 1 (continued)

Life at looked like it would suit me, but anything was better than more time spent on a bus/ferry/long boat. The Sunset Gecko is a small place, with a large open air restaurant, two bungalows, and a two floor loft, as well as a number of open air huts (in which you can eat or just relax) that are right on the beach. Cici and I had reserved a bungalow, inside was a double bed and mosquito net. I was suddenly feeling a little self-conscious about sharing a bed with Cici. I didn't really want to be asked again if she was my lover.

Outside our bungalow where two showers, one with no ceiling so you could shower under the stars/sun and a row of tidy clean toilets. An American woman, Jill, gave me the grand tour. She immediately recognized my accent as being from Chicago (close enough) and I laughed. I'm not very good with accents. I mistake Aussies for Brits, Kiwis for Aussies and generally offend people when I try to guess. I guess Canadians really hate being mistaken for Americans, so much that they trend to wear Canadian flag patches on their backpacks. Lame.

I digress, this American, Jill is a bit of a marvel, though her type is not unusual in Southeast Asia. She has been at the Gecko for three weeks with no plan to leave. She stays there for free by helping out the owner. Not a bad idea if you don't mind living simply. Life on Meno, particularly at Gecko, is a little piece of paradise.

Gecko is run by a middle-aged Japanese man named Hiro. Hiro seems quite environmentally conscious, which is tragically uncommon in this part of the world. I'm not exactly an environmentalist, but it does pain me to see adults throwing their trash off the side of the boat into the ocean and smashing glass soda bottles at the side of the road. Hiro takes things a step further than simply making sure garbage gets into the trash bin. His showers are all fresh (not salt) water which has to be brought over from the main island of Lombok. He recycles all of the water by using it on the plants and flowers found throughout Gecko. In order to recycle it, everyone must use natural soap--he gives everyone a bar for free when they stay with him. There is even a sign warning guests not to pee in the shower because it's not good for the plants.

The first night here I scarfed down two plates of rice and coconut curry. I then laid out and looked at the stars which are very clear here. My first full day on Meno was yesterday. The sea here, which I didn't get to see the previous day, is beautiful. Clear and myriad shades of blue. It is no Koh Tao (Thailand) though, nothing I've seen so far has surpassed my first and best island experience. One aspect where Meno falls short is the complete lack of sea life near the shore. There are no tropical fish nor coral; in fact, the entire beach is made of dead coral. Dead coral is a painful thing to step on and made me long for soft, silky sand. According to Hiro, 90% of the coral died due to El Nino (Spanish for, "The Nino") 10 years ago. It's all been swept to shore. The water is very shallow and standing on a bed of coral is (have I said this already?) quite painful. I didn't, therefore, much enjoy the swimming, not that I'm a huge fan of swimming to begin with.

Basically, it's just about relaxing here. I did manage to continue walking around this tiny island of 600 inhabitants yesterday. It was actually very interesting. First, I cam upon a lake, which was empty except for a few circling birds and rather eerie. I pressed on, passing neighboring Diana's Cafe, past that there was nobody. I literally did not see any people. I walked by a ground filled with nice, though weathered, cottages that stood on concrete bases. The drapes were drawn shut in all of them. Clearly they had not been used for some time. The in ground pool was decaying, filled with algae, water, and a few random fish--forever imprisoned together in this tiny area when they could be in some lake or ocean. How tragic. The hotel restaurant was lined with worn tables and overturned chairs; a lone beer bottle sat on the outdoor bar.

I continued walking and found more ruins. Another hotel with a poolside bar (fancy!) and a restaurant. This pool was empty, but showing signs of age. Further down was an abandoned pizzeria, then a set of decrepit cottages and perhaps what was once a restaurant. It was a ghost town and looked like an excellent place to explore, especially for a child. I walked on and found some nice cottages that were actually in use. In front of them was a long, coral filled beach with just a few occupants. I dipped my feet in the warm water and searched for seashells and pretty pieces of coral.

I then headed back and went for another painful swim. The water is extremely shallow and the waves were bashing me into the ground, the coral cutting my feet and legs. Ten minutes was enough. The rest of my evening was spent relaxing. Today, yet again, I'm doing hardly anything. We have to leave soon, heading for Senggigi, Lombok. Tomorrow morning we have an early flight to Surabaya, Java. I don't want to leave here, but it is time. I wish I was Jill.

July 1, 2009. . . 9pm

Today ended up going quite well. One of the workers, 17-year-old Ari, a worker at Gecko, has malaria. I never would have guessed it because he looked in such good spirits. Anyway, he had to go to Lombok to see the doctor and his dad was going to be our taxi driver (from Bangsal harbor to Senggigi) anyhow, so Ari joined us for the trip.

We left Gecko around one o'clock by horse cart, of course. I asked Hiro what the story was behind the Ghost Town. He said after the first Bali Bombing in 2002 tourism slumped dramatically and the owners couldn't afford to sustain the hotels, one of which was 3 stars (must have been the one with the poolside bar). What a shame and such a waste.

We took our horse cart to the harbour and had to wait about an hour and a half for the next public boat (90cents/person) rather than charter one ($17/boat). We arrived at pain-in-the-ass Bangsal with another traveler in tow, Mathes from Germany. He approached me on the long boat and asked if he could split a cab with us. Ari and his dad (our driver), Cici, Mathes, and I all managed to crammed into the air-conditioned taxi and off we went on the windy coastal road (paved, thankfully) to Senggigi. A half an hour and a 65,000 rupiah ($6.50) cab ride later we arrived.

The center of Senggigi isn't much. We are staying at E'len Guesthouse for 75,000 rupiah and it's alright. After checking in, Cici, Mathes, and I walked about 2 km to a temple that's built on an outcrop of volcanic rock that spills directly into the sea. Very cool little temple. There were no other tourists around; however, there were a few dozen Indonesians engaged in prayer and some sort of religious ceremony. We watch them pray, get blessed with some sort of holy water, and then line up for a procession. They carried baskets of food on their head. They walked single file down to the beach and sent their offerings in a little boat out to sea. The makeshift boat quickly sank. Mathes seemed completely absorded in all this while Cici appeared disinterested. I was somewhere in between, but mostly feeling hungry.

The three of us went to a German (!) restaurant for dinner and I had a rather delicious snitzel. Tomorrow morning, 5am, we are all off to the airport to catch our early morning flights.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Island Time-getting to Gili Meno

July 1 (continued)

The day before yesterday: One Long Day. We made the journey from Ubud to Gili Meno. The Gilis are three small islands off the northwest coast of Lombok (the island neighboring Bali to the east). No motorized vehicles are allowed on any of the three islands, nor are there any stray dogs. I decided to go to Meno because it is the quietest of the three and because of the Sunset Gecko, which I will get to later.

The journey to Gili Meno is painfully slow if you do it the cheap way ($16). We were suppose to get picked up at our guesthouse in Ubud at 7am, but that turned into 7:30. Our van took us to Padang Bai, the harbour on Bali's east coast. We arrived there at 8:15 and our (slow) ferry departed at 9am, which naturally turned into 9:30. The ferry ride, which I was assured by the travel agency in Ubud, would only take three hours. It took five. We arrive at Lombok's western harbour at 2:30pm.

There were numerous touts there, aggressively trying to sell us cold drinks and crappy food. We got into the van that would take us to the other harbour, Bangsal (which would take us to the Gilis). Still the vendors came to us, pushing coca-colas and slices of pale watermelon through the windows. Cici ended up making an impulse buy of two small, whitish pineapples for 5,000 rupiah (50 cents). Not a wise investment. They were the most under-ripe, flavorless pineapples I ever did taste. Boo.

A Brit in the back of the van bought a couple of beers for 50,000 rupiah. As soon as he handed his money over for the beers, the vendor upped the price to 60,000 ($6). The Brit was not having it. He refused to pay the extra money and called the vendor a liar. The two went back and forth for a very uncomfortable minute or two, all while everyone in our van was urging our driver (an old man who probably couldn't understand a word of English) to drive. Finally the driver asked the vendor what was going on, at least I can only assume this as the conversation was in Indonesian. At this point, the vendor looked like a rabid dog--he was on the verge of going ballistic over 10,000 rupiah (ONE DOLLAR!!!). Some other mean and muscular Indonesian onlookers began to get involved. One of them exclaimed in English, "Pay him! Your boat to Gili is waiting for you! It will leave soon!" The Brit would not cave.

"No! He is a liar! Everyone saw I paid him! Now he wants more."

The rough and tumble Indonesian onlookers were not happy and started to swagger over to our van. We were surrounded by them and I was beginning to feel a little nervous and a little annoyed. I understand the principle--no one likes to feel cheated, but ONE DOLLAR is not worth a potential foreigner vs. Indonesian throw down. So I turned around from the front seat, with ten pairs of eyes staring at me.

"How much money are we talking here?" I asked.

"It's not the money; this is bullocks!" replied the Brit. I want to laugh. God, I love it when they say things like bullocks, though I can't bring myself to implement it into my venacular.

"I know it's bullshit, but it's us versus them," I reasoned. The Brit threw 10,000 rupiah (ONE DOLLAR) out the window and the driver hit the gas. Off we went again.

We then drove 45 minutes at 30km/hr to Mataram, Lombok's capital. We stopped at the tourist office for nearly half an hour, at which they gave us a ticket for the final boat trip and pushed us to book our return tickets. I refused. I asked him how much longer until we got to the Gilis. "About half an hour drive to Bangsal, maybe 25 minutes depending on traffic and then another 30 minutes by boat to Gili Meno," the filthy liar replied. I looked at my watch, nearly 4pm. I was told I'd be to Gili Meno by this time. Ah well, if we left soon we would make it there by 5 o'clock, I reasoned naively.

We did manage to leave the ticket office by 4pm and we arrived at Bangsal around quarter to five, after what seemed like an endless drive on a mountain drive on which we had to constantly swerve to avoid hitting monkeys (aggressive little beasts).

Bangsal has built itself quite a reputation and it is not described in a good light by any person or guidebook. My experience there seemed to be pretty much on spot. When we arrived we were made to wait in a crappy restaurant for 45 minutes while being harassed to buy necklaces (you know, the kind you thought were cool back in 7th grade), return tickets ("NO! For the millionth time I do not want a return ticket!"), and being asked annoying questions by locals. I'm just glad there were 30 of us, therefore they didn't bother me alone.

Finally, we were told we could go and they seperated us into groups by island. About 20 people were off to Gili Trawangan, 10 to Gili Air, and only 4 of us to Gili Meno, which I was told by one particularly annoying, questioning local was "honeymoon island." Annoying, questioning local followed us over to our boat, at which point he asked if Cici was my girlfriend. I was about to have a caniption. I was tired, hungry, and now a lesbian (not that there's anything wrong with that).

"No! I'm married!" I barked.

"To her?" he aked, gesturing to Cici.

"No, to a man! What a rude question to ask!" I yelled.

"Sorry. I thought she was your girlfriend," he said with a smile.

I wanted to scream, to cry. It was nearly 6 o'clock and the sun was setting--soon it would be dark. Get me to Gili Meno! Get me to the Sunset Gecko!

We took a wooden long boat to Meno, a bit of a scary ride as the waves tossed us around. When we arrived at the harbour it was pretty much devoid of people. There were some horse cart drivers (the only mode of transportation) that were offering to take us the one kilometer to the Sunset Gecko for 50,000 rupiah, 5 bucks; ha, I could get a cab in New York for that price! We therefore took a pass on the horse cart and decided to walk it. The sun was down but we could still follow the path around the small island by twilight. Nearly half an hour later we made it to the Sunset Gecko. It was now dark.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Island Time-Bali

Friday, June 26

I'm in Bali now, watching the waitor and the waitress while I have a coffee at a tiny cafe. The back of the cafe is open and facing a rice paddy. There is also a small shrine at which the waitor and waitress our providing daily offerings to the Gods. The offering consists of a dish made out of a leaf filled with rice, vegetables, bread, flowers, and a stick of incense. This makes me feel guilty. I am here, yet know next to nothing about Balinese culture. I don't even know to which Gods/religion they are offering to. I thought most Indonesians were Muslim, but evidently not on Bali.

So how have things been since my last "journal" (or as Cici would say, "diary") entry? I'm feeling increasingly optomistic. We arrived in Bali last night around 8pm after a two hour flight delay (that's budget airlines for ya). Our taxi took us to Ubud, which is near the center of the island. As we got out of the taxi, our driver motioned a young guy over to us. This guy, Made (pronounced "Ma'day") helped us find a guesthouse and took us to a local joint to eat. I'm always hesitant to have people help me, for fear they are going to ask for a large sum of money at the end.

I asked Made why he was helping us and he said he just wanted to introduce himself to us in case we would need a motorbike driver. We might actually take him up on that offer.

July 1

I've had a chance to do and see a lot in the past few days. On a side note, Cici is not feeling so well as she has been having trouble with one of her ears ever since our last flight. We may need to go to the hospital as soon as we make it to a proper city.

Rewinding to Ubud, it's a very charming place. There's a lot of tourists there, though it's not at all crowded (thanks Global Financial Crisis). Since the economy is in a slump, tourism is down here, just like everywhere else.

Ubud is filled with little shops selling handicrafts (as Made calls it), cafes, restaurants, and guesthouses. My first day there I spent walking around and had a delicious (but salty) tuna steak. In the afternoon I went shopping with CiCi. As I probably previously mentioned, she doesn't exercise a lot of restraint in her purchases. I try to reel her in a bit, but I'm afraid of being too bossy/controlling (which I surely am). Her motto is, and this is a direct quote: "Just buy it." I can't live by that, although I'm sure Cici would get on well living in the U.S. as long as she could secure a Mastercard.

My second day in Ubud. . . for some reason I can't remember very clearly. I went out for some local food with Cici. After lunch, ah, I remember now--I am probably just trying to block the unpleasant experience from my memory!

I went to the Monkey Forest, which is one of Ubud's big attractions. I'm not the biggest fan of monkeys to begin with. I haven't had a lot of positive experiences with them--aggressive, rude little beasts. The monkeys at this park were even worse than expected.

When you enter the park you can buy a bunch of bananas to feed the monkeys with. Most people do, thank God I didn't. The monkeys climb all over people trying to take the food. In fact, two monkeys climbed on me and attempted to steal my water bottle. It was terrifying. I could picture one of them grabbing my camera and wallet and then making a break for it while the other one bit me and gave me rabies. Luckily, I managed to get everything into my purse and zip it up, then walked slowly over to a group of people holding food. The monkeys quickly lost interest in me and jumped off. What a relief.

That evening I went out to dinner with Cici and then we went to see a performance at one of Ubud's many temples. It was strange. Basically a large group of half naked men chanting around a fire with a couple of girls dancing around the middle. A "monster" would then come and kidnap one of the women. This went on for about one hour. Then two very young girls (about eight) came out and danced in unison, pretended to die, and then got up and danced again. Repeat three times. The final five minutes consisted of a fire being made, trampled, and then a man walking over the burning ashes (fire dancing). Not sure if it was woth 75,000 rupiah ($7.50).

The third day, our last day, in Ubud was pretty fantastic. We hired Made and his friend Made (no joke, it's a very common day. I think it means "second son") to be our drivers. We started off at 8:30am and they took us to a cave that is carved like a dragon with an open mouth, though it is called Elephant Cave. We then went to a small temple in a valley that was surrounded by waterfalls and rice terraces. The climb back up to the motorbikes was tiring; I thought Cici might not make it. The next part was really cool. We went to a hot spring that is believed to have magical powers. Numerous locals were bathing in it and the Indonesian president's Balinese home even overlooks this sacred spot. Next to the springs is a temple. It was packed full of people, mostly dressed in white, who were providing offerings and praying. Just as we made our way to leave, a performance began right in front of us. Men dressed ornately in white, carrying sticks did a ritual dance as people around us prayed. The sun beat down, but I didn't really mind.

After that we visited an organic farm which produces coffee, cocoa, tea, and various spices. We got to taste ginger tea, ginseng coffee, cocoa, and Balinese coffee. They were all delicious, but the prices they were asking were a bit outrageous. Cici managed to spend $20 there, after haggling for 15 minutes--something I simply didn't have the energy for.

To wrap up our trip we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking a lake and volcano. We were harassed by touts and I found myself buying a bag full of passion fruit from an old lady with catoracs and a t-shirt from another seller. We then had a very disappointing lunch (fried noodles should not equal Ramen noodles) at a restaurant overlooking the lake. At least it only cost $1.20, not as tragic as the god awful 25 euro meal Ming and I had on Andros Island in Greece. Our last stop was a viewpoint that overlooks a stunning rice terrace near Ubud. Overall, a very good day.

Yes, you can read my diary

Monday, June 22

I'm back in Beijing after three weeks in Europe. It's a little strange. I definitely have to switch to Asia mode. When we got off the airport shuttle at Beijing train station, we were greeted by a pack of touts wanting to give us a ride/or take us to a hotel. That never happened in Europe. That always happens in China.

I'm staying with my Chinese friend, Cici, tonight. We are leaving for Tianjin early tomorrow morning, taking the bullet train. My first bullet train experience. Exciting.

To tell you the truth, I'm not feeling all that excited about the second lag (or is it leg?) of my trip. Mostly I'm feeling tired. I'm also worried about Cici. This might be difficult and scary for her. I know I'll need to be patient, which will be difficult. I'm already a bit burnt out from traveling. I do think our personalities compliement each other fairly well, so things should go fairly smoothly.

Unfortunately, I am pretty much going to Indonesia on nothing, as I left my guidebook back in Chengde and will be mostly winging this trip after all my precise planning in Europe.

Tuesday, June 23

This morning we took the fast train (330km/hr at top speed. Don't ask me what that is in miles) from Beijing to Tianjin. Now we are just killing time as it is to early to go to the airport. Cici, however, doesn't seem to want to do much of anything, which equates to us hanging out at the train station's KFC. Not exactly wanted to do with my day, but that's what happens when you have other people buy train tickets for you. Cici's over cautious boyfriend got us tickets that had us arrive in Tianjin at 8am. Our plane leaves at 4pm.

This is going to be a difficult trip for me; I can sense it. Perhaps that's pessimistic? I wish I were alone, left to my ponderings and crabbiness. I miss Ming and want to go home, but at the same time the thought of slipping back into my former life (living in Chengde, teaching everyday) feels me with dread. It's always so hard for me to adjust when coming back to China. So difficult, in fact, that it makes me question ever leaving in the first place.

Cici, ah, Cici. This is the first time I've traveled with a Chinese person other than Ming. I know she is looking to me to figure things out, but I don't much know what I'm doing. Perhaps a guidebook would help. There's more to say, but Cici is looking over my shoulder.

Wednesday, June 24

Today is a slightly better day for me. I'm excited to be in KL (Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia), our stop over before heading to Bali. I'm most excited by all the delicious food that surrounds me. I still miss Ming and there is a part of me that wishes I was left alone to my grumpy ole self. I'm too serious, yes. And a bit of a loner at times. I definitely take things too personally. I see these weaknesses in myself--can i change them? "You need to change your personality," Ming said to me while in Greece (among other times). If only it were that easy.

As for the time spent in KL. . . we got into the city late last night, around midnight. Our taxi driver was quite nice and chatty, as was our waitor at the Indian restaurant we went to. The locals here, many of them speak English as a native speaker would. In fact, when the Indian waitor didn't hear me clearly he said, "Come again?" I think it might be a bit of a blow to Cici's English speaking confidence. However, the situation is different here than it is for most Chinese. I think people here grow up using English. Thanks British imperialism.

We are staying at Red Palm Hostel, which is where Katalin and I stayed when we were here two years ago. I can't believe it's been two years. I miss Katalin. She is so well-traveled and we really have similar interests. Cici and I share one common interest--food! She is a compulsive buyer. I had to talk her our of buying a $50 pair of shorts (that's two days budget here!) at The Gap (first store we went to) today. She's also not much for walking, which is one exercise I actually enjoy.

It's hot here, of course, but it's the humidity that's killer for me. But it's fairly laid back and the people are friendly. I love the open-air restaurants and air-conditioned 7/11's.

Today we took the monorail to the Petronas Towers (which are twin towers that are among the tallest buildings in the world). I got scolded by Cici for crossing the street on a "Do Not Walk." I let her have it. I'm just a bitch. Why am I so crabby? It may be the lack of sleep, which I'm hopefully caught up on now?

We also visited Chinatown and ate Chinese food (CiCi didn't believe me when I told her it was Chinese food). We walked to Sentral Market and Merdaka Square. She seemed pretty underwhelmed by all of it. Then the sky became heavy with grey clouds and we could hear thunder, so we made our way toward the monorail. Right after we got in, it began to pour. We eventually made it back to the hostel. I passed out for four hours and then we went next door for dinner. Naan bread with curry, Tom Yam soup, and a Chai tea for 6.7 ringgit ($2). I'm in heaven, but tomorrow we are off to Bali which will be another kind of heaven.